A whole bunch of years ago I worked as the Associate Editor for Waves magazine in Sydney. Waves shared an office with Tracks, Australia’s most irreverent surf magazine. We documented surfing, but mostly we stirred up shit. Waves and Tracks were published by Mason Stewart, a corpo-minded house, and we felt it our duty to slip controversial pieces into the mags, disturbing readers and the boys upstairs (i.e., the publishers) alike. I wrote a massively self-indulgent piece about passing up a rainy day surf to lie in bed and smoke weed and have sex with my then girlfriend. We celebrated hard drinking, and smoking, and Bukowski, and Nietzsche, and a general defiance and political incorrectness that never would have flown in the US surf mags. I’m eternally grateful for that experience. Unbeknownst to me, I was taking part in a great Aussie surf tradition that might be called “the larrikin spirit.”
Flying the flag boldly for this larrikin spirit in the present day is Jed Smith, writer, Australia’s Surfing Life Editor, Vice contributor, and co-host of the Ain’t That Swell podcast. I have not met Jed in the flesh, but I’ve enjoyed his pieces. He is a champion of grit and mischief and ‘doin’ it tough.’ He appreciates the underdog. He has no time for the pompous and the entitled. He believes in the truth. And what a breath of fresh air in a world of whitewashing!
I emailed Jed and told him as much. I said, “I have a chalk board in my office where I keep a ‘Men I Hope To Sleep With When I Come Out of the Closet’ list, and presently you’re ranked #5.” Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t tell him that. And I don’t have a chalk board, I have a 4’ by 6’ piece of foam core with Post-It Notes filled with thoughts, ideas, beloved phrases, overheard conversations, and “Email Jed Smith re: Dazzling Blue.” I told him I love his stuff, that the whole crew at Birdwell love his stuff, and that I’d like to interview him. He was in Bali at the time, so it took a couple months to finally get him on the phone. Here’s our conversation, edited down ‘cause we talked a whole lot.
You’ve got some great nicknames—The Silly Cybin, The Punch Drunk Pikey, Scum Valley’s Finest. Where do they come from?
The Scum Valley’s Finest is everyone from my hometown, I guess. Punch Drunk Pikey… I mean, you can’t play rugby league in South Sydney, in lower income kind of communities, without having a lot of fights. It’s unfortunate, the culture that you’re born into. And we don’t have guns here, so everybody seems to be punching all the time. And Silly Cybin—man, that shit’s helping me heal. I’ve got a lot of shit I carry around in me because of my upbringing. And yeah, man, I can’t promote the benefits of plant-based diets and medicines enough.
There’s a big working class element in the Aussie surf scene, yes?
I think it’s traditionally been an everyman’s kind of pursuit. Some of our best surfers were raised on welfare. That’s the beauty of surfing here—it’s a proudly blue-collar thing. And I guess we still have the luxury of having a lot of cheap land alongside the coast, so it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. I don’t know exactly what it’s like in the States, but Southern California doesn’t look all that blue-collar to me.
It’s definitely not. It’s real expensive to live near the coast in California. Do you think there’s an advantage of growing up with that fighting spirit?
It’s a double-edged sword, man. I think growing up in borderline poverty or with absentee parents or any kind of self-esteem issues, you’re kind of driven to overcompensate in a way. You’re driven to overachieve, and I see that amongst a lot of the top surfers, whether it’s John John Florence, Kelly Slater, Rob Bain, Koby Abberton, Robbie Page, the list goes on. But there’s a lot of drama in these people’s lives, and a lot of hardship. And you look at the Brazilians, too. Jadson Andre, a guy from poverty in the pretty impoverished northern regions of Brazil, and Italo Ferreira—these guys aren’t really from money.
And I think the trauma thing is complex. Because you feel shit, you kind of want people to love you, so you are driven to work hard and achieve because it seems like once you get to a level of success in your chosen field, people will love you. But the sad fact is often once you get there, you realize it didn’t guarantee love at all. It guarantees a kind of worship, and it’s a bit different. And a lot of those people run into trouble later on in life. But, yeah, I think the other part of this is when what you’ve got to go back to is digging holes or laying bricks in the Australian summer, you’re going work pretty hard to avoid that destiny, because that’s not an easy life.
What facets of surfing are you most interested in?
Well, growing up in Bondi, in the inner city, it was so eclectic. It’s almost like a Venice Beach. It was like a f--king rave culture, and graffiti and skating and surfing and football and boxing, and all this shit mixed in together. And we all come down there everyday and kind of habituate beautifully. We’d get along like a f--king house on fire. And being surrounded by all the men really had a big influence on me; they raised me, took me under their wing. I was raised by a woman, so I didn’t have a whole lot of male role models. And those guys were out there, man. They were f--king outlaw, kind of truth telling, worldly, well traveled, but also blue-collar a lot of the time. I love that combination, guys who are blue-collar but also extremely worldly at the same time. And I know guys, they’re just f--king plumbers and landscapers, and they’ll go to Bali or wherever, and they’ll just drop 50 bucks or 100 bucks on the local f--king beach vendor who they’ve been hanging with for 20 years every time they leave. And so, yeah, these are the stories and the people I grew up kind of worshipping. And some of them were famous surfers. A lot of them weren’t.
Anything that you’re dying to write that you’ve yet to write?
It’s frustrating right now because I feel like I’m in my prime as a journalist in the mainstream media sense, but I’m being fully locked out of the media. I’ve written for every newspaper in Australia, but I’m freelance, and the media’s locked off to the bourgeois and the f--king upper middle class, the elites, just decadent, apathetic, nihilistic kind of people. So it’s frustrating not to be able to be a part of the conversation around equality, because there’s just very few people who’ve come from a low income or working class background working in the media, or politics for that matter. And I think the media’s just a terrible reflection of how rotten the system is. It’s dominated by wealthy people with a wealthy perspective, which is f--king vastly out of touch with the stresses of poverty and the working poor and the working class. And so a whole massive chunk of the human experience isn’t being talked about or written about or conveyed.
Tell me about your Ain’t That Swell podcast.
Yeah. We’ve been doing live shows recently. It’s been going for ages. It’s just a shambles, really, based on the kind of comedic genius of Roy & HG, Barry Humphries, Dame Edna, and this kind of tradition. And obviously it’s rooted in surf culture because that’s what we do. And I worked for Tracks originally, briefly, and then I got a job at Stab magazine. And one of the things I noticed working in the surf media was the culture of surfing that I was a part of was outlawed. That blue-collar kind of degenerate, kind of drug-based stuff was taboo, you couldn’t even talk about it or write about it. It didn’t serve the commercial interests of multinational surfing corporations, or so I was led to believe. And so the podcast was an antidote to all that PC kind of corporate washing that was going on in surf culture, which I just thought was dishonest and just wasn’t a good representation of what we are as a culture. And I think Ain’t That Swell is a f--king perfect representation of what we are as a culture, and that’s why people love it, because it’s speaking to their experience, man. And I think the surf media lost its way and surf brands lost their way a long time ago.
For more Jed Smith go to: @jedaum_smith and https://www.facebook.com/aintthatswell/